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Why are Moscow and Brussels so obsessed with Moldova?

Moldova might seem to be a tiny country with little power to affect global or even regional politics, but looks can be deceiving. As a matter of fact, in order to understand the unique relationship between the West (namely the EU and NATO) and Russia, one must also understand Moldova’s geopolitics.

April 3, 2019 - Michael Eric Lambert - Articles and Commentary

Winery tasting room. Cricova Photo: american_rugbier (cc) flickr.com

Moldova? If you are reading this article at the moment, it is probably because you are curious to learn about something new or have already been working on the topic for a while. Moldova is not often on the minds of most ordinary people, not even its neighbouring countries, Romania and Ukraine, nor the Moldovans themselves. Why is it so? Maybe because it is one of the poorest states in Europe, cannot boast any mountains for skiing during the winter or access to the Black Sea shores for partying during the summer, or simply because it is too far away. When I first began to study Moldova before the Ukraine crisis hit, I became obsessed about the country’s geopolitics and identity because, as the old saying goes, “the devil is in the details”. Moldova might be seen as a tiny, weak country with little power to affect global or even regional politics – but as it turns out this is not the case at all. As a matter of fact, in order to understand the unique relationship between the West (namely the EU and NATO) and Russia, one must understand Moldova’s geopolitics, and for several reasons

The organic beauty of Moldova

First of all, Moldova could become one of the most prosperous on the European continent, considering Chinese strategic investments in the Black Sea region. But even without external influences, Moldova is an amazing country in its own right and accordingly deserves attention on this basis alone. One of the country’s most impressive assets is its incredible black earth, consisting of more than 745 varieties. Chernozem occupies around three-fourths of the land area of the country, brown and gray forest soils cover around 11 per cent and floodplain, or alluvial, meadow soils occupy around 12 per cent of state.

The quality of the land ensures prosperous wine production with vineyards going back to the Roman Empire after the Greeks themselves imported the production process from the Caucasus. I am used to saying during wine tastings in France that a sommelier who doesn’t know about Moldova’s wine is no real one. Most of the cépages in France come from the Black Sea region, and it is a shame not to know where the product you are drinking is coming from. Moldova produces 124,200 tonnes of wine annually. While most of the wine was exported to the Soviet Union, but today the majority goes to Russia, and there is increasing interest from China. Chinese interest for this valuable resource is growing fast because its consumers are looking for authenticity by comparison to Western European wines, which are currently facing a decrease in exportation.

Moldova also produces vegetables, notably tomatoes. The production is so large that most of the country’s economic difficulties could be solved if Moldova’s partners decided to implement restrictions on imports of Chinese tomatoes (the largest producer worldwide) and to focus on partners from the Eastern Partnership. Tomatoes are not only sold as individual, whole items : plenty of daily foods contain tomato, from the sauce on your pizza and pasta, to slices in your salad and the topping of most sandwiches. Currently the world receives 31 per cent of its tomatoes, or 52.6 million tonnes, from China, so try to imagine the quantity a country of the size of Moldova will need to produce in order to compensate for the absence of Chinese tomatoes. For those still not convinced about the potential untapped wealth of tomato production, I invite you to read the World Economic Forum article entitled “The surprising economics of tomato ketchup”.

Besides wine and tomatoes, Moldova also offers preserved nature, weather quite similar to Burgundy, old abandoned castles and manors and the world’s largest wine cellar as mentioned in a recent National Geographic report.

The strategic geopolitics of Moldova

As some readers might not be so much into vegetables, I suggest we move on to the reasons why Moldova is so important – geopolitically – to Russia and the West. Let us be pragmatic: if Moldova was of no interest, then both the West and Moscow would just give it to each other. The simple fact that Moldova is still stuck between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union and undergoing embargos from either side actually tells a lot about its strategic relevance.

From the perspective of Western diplomats, Moldova is fundamental and considered to be the first mandatory country before the EU pursues enlargement towards Ukraine and Georgia. Ukrainian EU membership would lead to more interest from Russia on Moldova (located between Romania and Ukraine, remember) as Moldova could become a Russian avant-poste in the middle of the enlarged EU, somehow quite similar to Kaliningrad in the Baltic. This location explains the interest and debate in the Duma and the European Parliament regarding Moldova’s future and belonging.

The Kremlin is also interested in Moldova due to a separatist area called Transnistria (Pridnestyrovie), a former part of Moldova that separated from the country after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Not recognised by any United Nations member country so far – including Russia – Transnistrians nevertheless live separately from Moldova as of today.

However, the story would not be interesting if Transnistria was just like the rest of Moldova. The main difference lies in the fact that this small land was one of the most weaponised areas in the whole Soviet Union. One might disregard this a noteworthy factor, believing the equipment surely must be outdated. While it is true that the Soviet military light vehicles, tanks and fighter-jets where already outdated before the breakup in 1991, the small arms are still valuable. They are currently used in most of the conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, northern Caucasus, eastern Ukraine, Latin America, and southern Asia. As most casualties and wars are done with light weapons, there is strong interest from the OSCE and the United Nations to keep an eye on the stockpiles in Transnistria. The West might have to deal one day with weapons trafficking next to Romania (a member of both the EU and NATO), and Russia might also have to face an increasing number of weapons available to the separatists in the Russian Caucasus. As of today, Russia might be blamed for being in Transnistria to check on the supplies but it seems better than leaving an unofficial government that is not subject to international law in charge of  a de facto state with a debt of 400 per cent of its GDP. I do not say this to support the idea of defending the Russian Armed Forces in Transnistria; rather I say it to expose the idea that Western and Russian interests in ensuring safety in Transnistria and Moldova are probably the same.

Moldova as a litmus test for EU soft power

Besides stockpiles of small arms and the fear of a Russian military avant-poste, Brussels is interested to know more about Moldova because the country presents the EU with an opportunity to evaluate its influence (soft power) in the post-Soviet space. Moldovan society is deeply divided regarding the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union; conducting comparative studies with other countries in the region might help the EU to understand where it has failed and where it has succeeded in the Eastern Partnership.

We should be honest to the Moldovan citizens and not irresponsibly raise any hopes that their country will join the EU any time soon. Indeed, this is a quite improbable prospect, as Moldova will need to solve issues such as separatism in Transnistria, sway the Gagauzes (the Turkish pro-Russian minority living in Moldova) into shifting their geopolitical beliefs, improve its economic situation, and manage to unanimously convince EU member states to welcome them, which seems quite difficult in an era of Brexit and rising populism. In short, it is quite convenient for (and a little bit cruel of) the EU to evaluate how attractive it is in Moldova when many Moldovans might be hoping for EU integration that probably will not happen.

Moldova as a historic symbol for Russia

Moldova’s relationship with Russia is quite unique because of the Soviet past. To some Russian tourists who might be nostalgic for the USSR, a stay in Moldova is an opportunity to rediscover a Soviet landscape and enjoy some time far away from globalisation. In Moldova the tourists can have local food and drinks from the garden and enjoy a preserved nature while talking about the USSR and old Soviet movies. The breakup in 1991 has been difficult both for Moldova and Russia.

Moldova is now tempted to connect with other partners such as the EU, but it is impossible to forget that Russia and Moldova still share a common language and a long history together. Russia is also ambiguous towards Moldova, pressuring it to join the Eurasian Economic Union and reminding Chisinau of how important Moscow is, considering embargoes on meat, wine, gas, etc. Moldovan people like to envision potential integration with the European Union but are far from naive in that aspect. And from their previous relationship with the Soviet Union, Moldovans acutely understand the fact that, in every union, you lose some liberties and limit which countries and groups you can align with. Like Ukraine, divided between the West and Russia, Moldova is fully aware it needs to decide upon its direction one day but is still waiting to see which ally can offer the best deal in terms of economics and freedom.

Russia might not like to consider Moldova as a priority compared to some other states, but nevertheless it is important for Russia to show political and economic interest in order to avoid any further EU or NATO enlargement in the post-Soviet space. By ensuring that Moldova remains outside the EU, Russia is making sure that Ukraine and the whole southern Caucasus also stay away from it.

Chisinau and Moscow share a long and complicated history. Some segments of the current Moldovan population, such as the Gagauzes, continue to support Russia and the use of the Russian language; they also still champion the Russian military intervention in 1992, one of its most ambitious post-Soviet foreign gambits  that was supposedly launched to protect Transnistria from the Moldovan Armed Forces. Russian experts at the armed forces’ ministry probably developed the whole concept of asymmetric warfare while looking at Moldova and Transnistria, as it was one of the first cases of military intervention meant to protect Russian minorities living outside of the young Russian Federation’s borders.

Caught between the West and Russia

To summarise, the West is interested in Moldova because it could be a stepping-stone to attracting the allegiances of more post-Soviet states. Russia’s interest, on the other hand, is more nostalgic: it does not need Moldova but cannot stop thinking about the previous relationship they had during the USSR and how useful it could be to have an ally in the Black Sea region, akin to the case of Belarus in the Baltic Sea.

Are Russia and the West really both obsessed with Moldova? The simple fact that they are fighting for it, when Moldova does not have much hard power to offer, says a lot. Overall the EU invested millions in Moldova’s economy with no results so far, and Russia offered membership in the Eurasian Economic Union membership without conditions. Call it a matter of principle, nostalgia and/or narcissism, but the result remains the same: two players are fighting for the same goal. Though many ordinary people could not even pick the region in which Moldova is located, you can be sure that diplomats in Brussels and Moscow are fully aware of where Chisinau is on a map.

Dr. Michael Éric Lambert is a diplomatic historian with an interest in European strategy (European Union, Switzerland, Russia) and foreign affairs of the People’s Republic of China in the post-Soviet space. Michael owns a Ph.D. in History at Sorbonne University – INSEAD, Europe Campus. After a short stay at the French Directorate of Military Intelligence (2014), he moved to Ottawa to study asymmetric warfare process (2015) and to Prague to continue his research on cyber/ICT security and smart power (2017 – ).

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